03/26/2008 11:00PM

These days, Big Brown merits respect

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NEW YORK - Twenty years ago, the favorite for the Florida Derby was Forty Niner, a champion 2-year-old and five-time stakes winner, making the ninth of 19 starts in a 16-month racing career. The world's best older horse that season was Alysheba, who had won the Kentucky Derby the previous year in his 11th of 26 career starts.

What a difference a generation makes. On Saturday, something like the 2008 versions of those horses are both running, but it might look at first glance as if most of their past-performance lines are missing. Big Brown, the favorite for the $1 million Florida Derby, will be making only his third career start and his stakes debut. Curlin, who will be heavily favored in the $6 million Dubai World Cup, will be making just his 11th start in a career that is considered admirably lengthy by today's standards simply because he was allowed to race at all as a 4-year-old.

In 1988, horsemen and horseplayers alike would have ridiculed the idea of a third-time starter winning the Florida Derby, much less a fourth-time starter winning the Kentucky Derby. Yet Curlin almost accomplished the latter feat last year, running third at Churchill before becoming a classic winner two weeks later in the Preakness in just his fifth career start. If Big Brown runs first or second in the $1 million Florida Derby, he will have enough earnings for the big dance and he will be one of the favorites in Louisville.

What Curlin did and almost did last year has paved the way for Big Brown's audacious bid, but there are at least three good reasons to be hesitant about boarding his bandwagon just yet.

First, and perhaps least important, is that Big Brown drew the outside in a field of 12 in the Florida Derby, and horses breaking from posts 11 and 12 in nine-furlong races at Gulfstream are a combined 0 for 29 since the track was reconfigured four years ago. This is not necessarily a meaningfully large sample, however, since only 11 races in four years have drawn a full field of 12.

Second, Big Brown would be making only his third start of the year if he makes it to the Kentucky Derby, while Curlin at least had three starts as a 3-year-old before the Triple Crown. You could argue that this cuts both ways, since Big Brown at least had a start at 2 and that's one of the few Derby "rules" that has held up amid the training revolution of the last 20 years: You still have to go back to Apollo in 1882 to find a Derby winner who did not race at 2.

The biggest question, of course, is whether Big Brown is anywhere near as good as Curlin, a proven champion. Big Brown has yet to run in a stakes race of any kind, or race around two turns on the dirt or longer than 1 1/16 miles. Still, there's more than a glimmer of similarity to the explosive talent we saw a year ago with Curlin.

Big Brown made his debut in a grass race at Saratoga on Sept. 3, two hours before Majestic Warrior won the Hopeful. Dismissed at 14-1 in a field full of well-bred juveniles from toney outfits, he was a breathtaking 11-length winner. In front by 3 1/2 lengths after a moderate opening six furlongs in 1:11.84, he rocketed home with a final five-sixteenths in 28.49 seconds. IEAH Stables and partners bought him off that explosive effort, and two quarter-crack problems sidelined him until a March 5 Gulfstream allowance race that was taken off the turf. Over a tiring track where the day's two other one-mile races were run in 1:39.48 and 1:40.69, Big Brown won by 12 lengths in 1:35.66.

It's no surprise that his handlers think highly of him, but they sound more than routinely and politely hopeful. After the race, jockey Kent Desormeaux, who won the 2000 Derby on Fusaichi Pegasus, said Big Brown might be as talented a horse as he has ever ridden. Trainer Rick Dutrow, whose eyes popped when Big Brown outworked his older stakes winner Diamond Stripes in company before the race, is skipping a trip to Dubai on Saturday to saddle Diamond Stripes and Benny the Bull in rich races to stay home and watch his 3-year-old.

So is Big Brown worth 5-2 in the Florida Derby? I can understand why plenty of wiseguys are salivating at the prospect of betting against him, given the post, his inexperience, and the jump up to stakes company. On the other hand, this is not the toughest Florida Derby ever, and Elysium Fields might be the only other legit Kentucky Derby contender in the field. Big Brown may not be Curlin, but he may not have to be. At the very least, though, he's a special colt, and for now the sky's the limit.